Food Justice

The Health Of A Community

Someone once asked what does the term food justice mean to me? Without thinking I said, “It means having a choice.” Being able to choose to live a healthy life is often taken away from certain members of society.

Justice is defined as ” the quality of being just, impartial or fair” and food is “any nourishing substance that is consumed to sustain life and promote health”. Obtaining both of these in their true definition depends on one thing — choice. A truly balanced society means we have a choice and if we accept these definitions as true, then I say with a bit of certainty most communities across the country lack food justice. If I wasn’t properly educated in nutrition, I would buy the flour with a deadly chemical right in the label, bleach. So while exercising my right to choose I am left with a question for you: Does fairness and justice still apply if the victim doesn’t know they have a choice?

To drill down the issue a bit more, organic foods are not subsidized by Federal funds and they cost twice as much as chemical-laden, pesticide-packed, highly processed foods. The “better” food is reserved for the higher income brackets and gentrified neighborhoods. While the lower-income neighborhoods purchase the lesser expensive, (subsidized) highly processed foods. How do I know this? Because as a nurse, I delivered care to our community, and my experience delivering that care taught me lower income families have the highest rates of chronic conditions. The majority of these conditions were preventable and completely reversible with proper nutrition. My medical experiences demonstrated a stark contrast between two ends of the spectrum. The least favorable end of that spectrum were the patients suffering from chronic conditions residing in low-income neighborhoods and places where you are more likely to find bleached flour, sugar-filled drinks and candy rather than whole foods, organic options and healthy snacks. In additional to low income/chronic health conditions, other aspects that should be considered in food justice and food security are: Food miles: how far must food be transported from field to plate? Food that travels less distance is fresher, more nutritious, cost less and is more sustainable, in general. Relational/proximate: where does what is raised go? from whom? to whom? for what price? where does the profit go? what is wasted? who is left out? Food accessibility: how far must people go to get healthy food? How hard is it to do? Without a car? With a disability? With four children under five? Economic equity: what’s considered affordable food would vary according to income, but there must be something safe, appropriate, nourishing and palatable for each person in a given place. Environmental protection: the low price of food overall in the United States has been driven historically by the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. This has allowed greater yields, and visually appealing food, but there have been environmental, genetic/health and financial costs that must be mitigated to avoid continued environmental damage.

Over the years, the phrases “food justice” and “food desert” have spurred some tangible wins. Leading up to the 2008 Farm Bill, several Members of Congress, led by Chicago’s Bobby Rush, mounted an effort to include language about food deserts. When the Farm Bill was signed into law that year, it included funding and instructions for the USDA to conduct a national study on the issue. That study in turn led to additional policy action that included the Healthy Food Finance and Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive programs in the 2014 Farm Bill—true bright spots in national food legislation that would likely not have been possible without the earlier galvanizing focus on food deserts.

But there are still serious issues behind this overly simplistic term. First, it ignores on-the-ground realities. Detroit, for example, has a vibrant farmers’ market network—including mobile markets—that reaches deep into the city’s most under-served neighborhoods, as well as a strong tradition of smaller, independent food retailers, not to mention the more than 1,500 community and school gardens spread throughout the city. What’s more, the issue of who has access to healthy, affordable food is also about who has access to the resources it takes to produce, process, and distribute that food. There is a well-worn proverb that if you give a man a fish, he eats for the day, but teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime. In today’s food system, the issue is more about who owns the pond. Without access to the source, all the fishing knowledge in the world cannot be put to use. And in many low-income communities in the United States, access to the pond of resources for food system revitalization (land, capital, markets) is limited. Lack of access to healthy food in traditionally under-served communities is not a problem to be solved but a symptom of a food system in need of repair and transformation. And you don’t get to transformation by solving problems one at a time: you get there by re-imagining the system and designing models and policies that cause the symptoms to dissolve. Of the many systems in our world today that need to be re-imagined, none is more important for our future than our food system. Indeed, food connects us like few other things…

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